Screens of all sizes are getting in between children and their parents, researchers say. But there’s another reason to put down the screen and look into your child’s eyes: It can be a sacred act.
by Jerry Windley-Daoust
If you’re reading this on your smartphone in front of your child, take a minute to put down your phone and look your child in the eyes.
No, a real minute…sixty seconds.
Was it a spiritual experience?
If your kids are like mine, your child probably took advantage of your attention to pepper you with a dozen requests.
Nonetheless, I want to make the case for what I call the “face” rule. It’s pretty simple: In our family, faces take priority over screens.
In other words, when someone is talking to you, or you’re talking to someone, you look at the other person’s face—directly, not sideways. And while there’s good, research-based evidence that this is a good practice for healthy relationships, I would argue that looking at one another with respectful attention is a spiritual act, and a sacramental act, and an act of love—and an act that our Catholic faith trains us for.
Research Says Screens Disrupt Parent-Child Bonds
As I mentioned, there’s increasing research-based evidence that when parents look at their screens instead of their kids, the parent-child relationship is disrupted, leading to behavior problems on both ends.
For example, an interesting study last year showed that “when parents used devices, children showed increased distress, lower positive emotion, and lower exploration and engagement with toys.” When parents put down their devices, the kids typically “recovered,” showing relief and perking up again. Young children are highly attuned to the emotions and actions of their parents; it’s one of the main ways they develop socially and emotionally. This is especially evident in newborns, who gaze attentively into their mothers’ eyes during the first few weeks of life.
But parents who reported using screens a lot at home had children who “were less positive, exploratory, and engaging” than other children, according to the researchers.
This is Child Development 101. But there’s also a spiritual case for putting down the screen to look at your child.
Meeting God’s Gaze
Think back to the Fall. After Adam and Eve sinned, what was the first thing they did? They hid themselves from the presence of God, avoiding his gaze. And thereafter, the first move of anyone who encountered God’s presence was to cover his or her face. It was a mere glance from God that threw the Egyptian army into disarray, after all, allowing the Israelites to flee across the Red Sea.
But that changed with the incarnation. By taking on human flesh in Jesus, God came to meet us, face to face.
And that is our ultimate destiny. In heaven, the Church tells us, souls “are like God…, for they ‘see him as he is,’ face to face” (Catechism #1023). This “face to face” encounter mediates the “communion of life and love” (#1024) that is the essence of heavenly life.
We get a foreshadowing of this personal, intimate encounter in the life of the Church.
Think, for example, of the practice of praying with icons. A religious icon is painted (or “written”) so that the person being represented gazes out of the painting, meeting our eyes. That meeting of eyes facilitates another, deeper, meeting with the presence of God “behind” the icon.
The dynamic is much the same in Eucharistic adoration; we leave our houses and go to where Jesus is physically present, and gaze upon his love made incarnate in the form of the Eucharist. Lovers long to be in one another’s physical presence, after all.
Or think of how the Church’s greatest mystics describe the experience of contemplative prayer in terms of a look or gaze. “Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus. ‘I look at him and he looks at me,’” says the Catechism (#2715). “This focus on Jesus is a renunciation of self. His gaze purifies our heart; the light of the countenance of Jesus illumines the eyes of our heart and teaches us to see everything in the light of his truth and his compassion for all men.”
Similarly, we normally experience the sacraments in person, not at a distance; the engaged couple face one another, holding hands, as they exchange vows; the priest imposes his hand on our head to confer the grace of Confirmation; and so on.
So what are we doing when we look away from our screens in order to honor the presence of another person, especially a child?
We embody and make real, if imperfectly, God’s loving gaze on that child. We act as a sacrament of God’s love for the child.
We honor God by honoring the one God loves.
And as so many of the saints recognized, in some mysterious way, we encounter Christ in human disguise.
There’s a Time for Screens, Too
Screens are a necessary tool of modern life. We use them for work, and to get things done, and to enlarge our community of friends. Sometimes we need uninterrupted time with these tools—just as in previous centuries, moms and dads needed to give close, uninterrupted attention to their manual work. The “face rule” ought to have an important exception, then: When mom or dad (or older kids working on homework) need to work, or even need an intentional break (from you, kids!), then kids ought to respect that time.
But I propose that screen time ought to be intentional, defined, and declared: “I need to work for the rest of the evening” or “I need my own screen time for the next twenty minutes.” Conversely, it shouldn’t be random and ubiquitous, constantly pulling us out of personal, face-to-face interactions with one another or our kids. And most days, “face time” should get more time than “screen time” when the family is together.
If you’re thinking, “That sounds . . . challenging,” I’m right there with you.
But if the eyes of my child (or spouse) are potentially a “sacred place” for meeting God, then the choice seems clear. To the extent that they act as barriers between me and God, the screens have got to come down.